By Liam Napier, NZ Herald

The All Blacks are set to face Fiji and Italy in a lightweight test series next July – after being turned down by several smaller nations to clash before the end of this year.

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The Herald understands next year’s series would see the All Blacks host Italy (two tests) and Vern Cotter’s Fiji (one) at the same time as the British and Irish Lions’ scheduled blockbuster tour of South Africa.

The schedule remains in doubt, however, due to New Zealand’s border restrictions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc with the international calendar – with the All Blacks’ tests against Wales and Scotland, scheduled for July this year, postponed indefinitely and the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship in serious doubt.

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The All Blacks last played Fiji nine years ago in Dunedin, winning 60-14, while it’s been 11 years since Italy lost 27-6 in their last appearance on New Zealand soil.

At the weekend, All Blacks coach Ian Foster revealed the North-South match had been scheduled for the first time since 2012 after multiple second-tier teams turned down invitations to take on the All Blacks between the end of Super Rugby Aotearoa and the start of the Mitre 10 Cup.

“We had a window of time between Super Rugby Aotearoa and Mitre 10 Cup. Normally we would try to play a test match – potentially against a Tier 2 country. There was no Tier 2 country that wanted to play us,” Foster told Martin Devlin on Newstalk ZB.

“We put an invite out to a few but clearly a lot of countries aren’t in a situation or prepared to come over here and play at the moment, and we fully understand that.”

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Foster says the North-South match – which NZ Rugby are hoping can be played in front of a crowd to bring in $1 million in revenue – isn’t vital for the All Blacks, but is important from an economic perspective.

“We lost three test matches, with that we lose a lot of revenue that helps fuel the game.”

Wellington is in the box seat to host the match – already postponed by a week to September 5 – without crowds after the Government denied exemptions for Auckland-based players and staff to travel this week, due to the city’s level 3 lockdown after a community outbreak of Covid-19. Dunedin is another option to host the match.

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The lockdown will remain in effect until 11.59pm on Sunday, before level 2 will be phased in. Gatherings for Aucklanders will be restricted to 10 people at level 2, while a 50-person limit would be in place for funerals and tangi. Gatherings of no more than 100 people will be permitted everywhere else in the country, which means Sky Stadium in Wellington appears a more realistic option of hosting the match – even if no fans are allowed.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday said Cabinet would only review the country’s alert settings on Sunday, September 6.

Foster said he wouldn’t want the game to go ahead if the 14 Auckland-based players and staff cannot be involved, but said that the match could be played without fans if that was deemed necessary.

“It can, and I’m sure we probably will try to make it go ahead without fans [if needed].

“The fact that they’ve filled up stadiums has created an awesome environment for players to play in and I know it will be a very different spectacle if we can’t have the fans there, so here’s hoping.”

NZR yesterday said an announcement on the North-South clash will be made today.

The All Blacks’ first match of the year, against a Moana Pacific side at Mt Smart Stadium on October 3, is also expected to be confirmed soon.

This article first appeared on nzherald.co.nz and was republished with permission.

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